How Might a Christian Think about the 4th of July?

How might a Christian think about the 4th of July? Perhaps by remembering a French mathematician.

Blaise Pascal was a 17th century French mathematician. He was also something of an Christian apologist. That is, someone who argued for the validity and truthfulness of the Christian faith. I was introduced to Pascal by one of my favorite professors from seminary, Doug Groothuis.

One of his arguments for Christianity is one that has been called “The Anthropological Argument.” Put simply, this was an argument for the validity of the Christian worldview based on the human condition (hence, anthropological). Pascal argued that human beings are at once capable of incredible greatness but also terrible wickedness. This, he argued, is true on an individual level, but it is also evident at a societal level. Human beings are in a sense “deposed royalty.” And this paradoxical nature of our nature (or anthropology) is a signpost that points us toward our human origin story as beings created in the image and likeness of God (therefore capable of greatness), but fallen into sin (therefore capable of great wickedness). The Christian worldview is unique among all other worldviews in its ability to account for both of these aspects in our human nature, and therefore it is worth considering.

The results of our fallenness we see played out all around us every day. But also, if we are honest, we see this played out in our own hearts. The great potential we have to love and care for others, while at the same time hidden layers of jealousy, resentment, and secret thoughts and actions we’d never want to reveal to those around us.

Pascal’s argument came to mind today as I reflected on the United States and the celebration of Independence Day.

If we are going to be honest about our nation, it is true that our nation is one that is capable of, and has achieved, high levels of greatness. And along with these high levels of greatness, we have also been responsible for great wickedness. So much so that on this July 4th, nearly 250 years after our founding, there are still wounds wide open and bleeding into our newsfeeds and newspapers. News of racial trauma that has never healed. Resentment about a nation founded upon ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. Not because the founding principles were poorly chosen, but because they were not applicable to all of the humans in this nation.

We are a nation of “deposed royalty.”

Full of greatness, but also great wickedness and sin.

Pascal accurately described the nature of our nation more than a century before we were founded, not because he could read the future, but because he could read his Bible – and also his own heart.

He was able to accurately describe the heart of America, because it is the condition of every heart and nation that has ever lived throughout history.

But Pascal’s worldview didn’t just allow for an accurate diagnosis of the problem of America (or any nation), it also gave the prescription for healing. The gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel is the story of the God who created this great humanity. And although we have forsaken our “royal” lineage in order to build our own personal kingdoms, this Creator entered into his creation to redeem and reconcile with his rebellious sons and daughters by offering himself as a substitute for their wickedness. As a result peace with God and peace with one another is possible. Peace that releases us from our bondage to our fallenness, and allows us to authentically live into our greatness.

At the cross of Jesus Christ, Dethroned Royalty rescued deposed royalty.

And as a result we find access to the source of healing for our own hearts, but also the healing that our nation needs. Not vicious cancel culture that excommunicates anyone who steps out of line. Not blind patriotism that relies upon revisionist history at the expense of truth.Not partisan gamesmanship or “eye-for-an-eye” ethics.

But instead, we can be recipients of grace who extend grace to others and labor for love and justice where it is lacking or missing.

How should a Christian celebrate the 4th of July? By rejoicing in the reality and blessings that come from living in the wealthiest nation in history, while also seeing the wickedness that allowed that wealth to be amassed. By being grateful for the “freedom” that we live with while also acknowledging the freedom that many never had. By being thankful for the soldiers who served his country selflessly, but also seeing that some of those soldiers (black and brown ones) returned from war to be greeted not with “thank you” but racial slurs and segregation.

Truly Christian thinking allows us the freedom to see the greatness of America while also seeing the great sinfulness of our past and present. The reason we can see this is because truly Christian thinking is built upon an understanding of humanity (an anthropology), that recognizes both our greatness and our wickedness.

Created in the perfect image and likeness of God.

Fallen into deep sin.

Restored to hope in redemption through Jesus.

Happy 4th of July, friends.

If We Must… How Should Christians Post about Political Issues on Social Media?

There have been many words used to describe the current moment in history that we are collectively experiencing.

Unprecedented.

Unusual.

Polarized.

What word would you choose? It is actually difficult to select just one word to describe this season isn’t it?

I find myself falling back on the word extraordinary. This cultural moment feels like a cross between the beginning of a zombie apocalypse film, and a documentary on the 1960’s. Worldwide pandemic meets civil rights protest. It’s a peculiar and sorrow-filled time to say the least.

And in the midst of such a time, we also find ourselves with the blessing and curse of social media. We have this tool in our pockets that gives us instant access to the thoughts and opinions of everyone on every issue at any time. And when I say everyone, we’re talking everyone from your next-door neighbor, to your grandmother, to your favorite athletes, all the way up to the President of the United States.

And unfortunately during these times, it feels more like this social media is more of a curse than a blessing. More burden than gift. More frustration than edification.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.

In the midst of this toxic environment, and especially when it comes to social and political issues, the question has likely crossed the mind of some Christians, “What is my place in all of this?” After all, as we seek to follow Jesus faithfully in all areas of our life, this realm is obviously not off limits.

And for Christian leaders, the question is often amplified. On a number of occasions, I have been told by a few different folks that I, as a pastor, shouldn’t talk controversial issues on social media. And while I often agree that certain conversations are best had in person, I don’t think completely abandoning these conversations on social media is the answer either. Nonetheless, I find my self often asking,  “Is it worth engaging with others via this platform – especially when it comes to social and political issues?”

Ultimately, I would answer yes, but we should proceed with caution.

Like any tool, social media can be used for good or for bad, so my thought is: why not work to redeem it for good? I have come to believe that when done thoughtfully and prayerfully, engaging certain issues on Facebook or Twitter can be a worthy endeavor.

Of course, I am not perfect at this and I have had my fair share of poorly thought through posts, but I have also received many notes of encouragement and appreciation (both public and private) about how I engage on social media. So I’d like to share a few questions try to ask myself before wading into controversy on Facebook or Twitter. Perhaps they’ll be helpful to you in this season.

1. Does this help or harm my witness as a Christian?

On several occasions throughout the New Testament, Christians are referred to as “ambassadors of Christ.” This is somewhat formal language, but it’s an excellent picture of part of what it means to follow Jesus. As Christians, one of the primary questions we should be asking ourselves regarding our conduct in all areas of life is this: Does this action faithfully represent Jesus and what it means to follow him faithfully, or does it send a distorted picture to the watching world?

Make no mistake friends, the world is watching. And every post or tweet has the potential to present a winsome or worthless case for our faith; the potential to make someone more curious about Jesus or push them away completely. Before every potentially controversial social media interaction, I try to take this into consideration, and then move forward accordingly.

2. Does the Bible speak clearly about this issue?

Almost any significant issue facing our society today is likely to be political or politicized, but no issue of importance is merely political. In other words, I am convinced that when it comes to many of today’s most pressing issues – such as the racial tensions in our nation, or abortion, or immigration, or the economy – for Christians, these are not primarily political issues but biblical ones. Therefore, before forming opinions and addressing such issues, our first question should not be “How does my political affiliation inform my thoughts on this issue?” but instead, “How does my faith inform my thoughts on this issue?”

Does the Bible speak clearly about the water that we are wading into? If so, then Christians, and Christian leaders especially, have a responsibility to point others to what God’s word has to say about this matter, but we must do so as ones whose allegiance most clearly belongs to Jesus and not some political party or platform.

3. Am I willing to engage with others respectfully about this issue?

This goes back to our discussion about faithfully representing Jesus, but before posting we must be resolved in our mind to address others who disagree with us with kindness and respect. As Christians, we believe that every human is made in the image of God, and because this is true, all people should be treated with dignity and respect, even when we don’t see eye-to-eye on issues of great significance.

It is a unfortunate lie many have bought into that in order to hold strong convictions you should voice those convictions with force and anger toward others. I find that the people I respect the most are those who can hold strong convictions, and still gently and respectfully engage with others on issues they disagree with. Jesus is a perfect example of this, and the world doesn’t see enough of it these days. Maybe followers of Jesus can help pick up the slack.

4. Am I posting out of emotion?

I try to put a great deal of thought into my posts before submitting them to the world, and as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s important to admit when we’ve missed the mark on a post. I know I have missed the mark many times, and more often than not whenever I look back at a post and think, “I probably shouldn’t have posted that one,” it’s usually because I posted from a place of anger or frustration.

There is a reason that certain issues are controversial, and oftentimes it’s because we all have strong feelings about the issue at hand (whichever side you fall into). But before posting, everyone should ask themselves, am I posting this from an angry and frustrated place more than a thoughtful and kind place? If so, it’s probably best to erase it, or save it in your drafts until you can come back to it and post it from a better mental and emotional place. You will likely feel better about it, and those reading it will as well.

5. Do I post about more than just political issues?

One of the ways that I often realize that my social media use is not where it should be is if I find myself posting too often about political issues. It’s a trap that is easy to fall into, especially when political and social tensions are high. Ultimately, however, Jesus told us that Christians ought to be known for our love. Not our politics. Not our rage. Not our fear of our circumstances. Love.

It is a good exercise to regularly go back and look at our timeline. Is it filled with more political and social commentary than encouragement, love for others and love for Jesus? If so, it might be worth reconsidering how we spend our time on social media.

Conclusion

Friends, we are all imperfect in many ways – and these imperfections can easily be seen in how we use social media. It’s true for me, especially in the midst of difficult seasons such as the one we are in now. But I have found that if I desire to enter into difficult conversations on social media in times like these, asking these questions beforehand can help mitigate the amount of regret I have afterward, and usually (I hope) help me better represent Jesus in this space. Perhaps the same is true for you.

#JesusChangedMyLife

The Christian church is right in the middle of one of our most sacred weekends of the year. This Sunday morning, we are celebrating Easter, which commemorates the historical resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, three days after his execution.

Since we are unable to gather together locally in the midst of this pandemic, over the last several days, many Christians have been creatively considering how to best celebrate this holiday and also how to invite others into this celebration. One idea put out by the Gospel Coalition suggested creating a short video and recounting your faith story, and then sharing via social media with the hashtag #JesusChangedMyLife. Since self-videos aren’t my favorite medium of communication, I figured I could write instead. This is not so much a life story as it is the basis of a life story.

My life is founded upon one simple statement borrowed from one of my favorite pastors and authors: God is most glorified in me, when I am most satisfied in Him.

It’s a brief statement that penetrates deeply into questions both about who God is and who we are, and how those truths relate to one another. This philosophy of life is based off of two fundamental ideas. God’s glory, and our human desire for satisfaction and pleasure. Let’s consider these one at a time.

1. The Glory of God

This is a core Christian concept that I’ll try not to make it too complicated; it goes something like this. If there is a God, then he is a really big deal. And he’s not just a big deal, but the biggest of deals. If he isn’t, then, by definition, he wouldn’t be God.

He is number one. Everyone and every thing else – including you and me – are not number one. You can pick whatever number you’d like, just not one.

The entire universe, from mini microbe to the grandest of galaxies, exists for one purpose: to display the glory of the God who created them. This purpose applies to you and me as well, and this is usually where people are ready to tune out.

After all, you might be thinking, “Living for God – isn’t that kind of old fashioned?”

“Going to church. Reading some ancient book. Following a bunch of rules. I mean, whatever floats your boat, but that’s not my cup of tea.”

Well don’t check out yet because, while I understand that response, this is precisely where things get most interesting.

2. Our human desire for living a satisfied life.

Although many might reject Christianity for any number of reasons, toward the top of the list is the commonly held sentiment that following Jesus just isn’t satisfying. We’ve got our own desires we’re chasing after.

Meaningful careers. Loving relationships. The next adventure. Perfect families. Inner peace.

You can fill in the blank with whatever you like, but more often than not, our life’s pursuits don’t line up with “living to glorify God” – whatever that means. At the very least our seeking of satisfaction seems completely unrelated to a life that glorifies Jesus, and in other situations our pursuits are downright at odds with who we know God to be and what he seems to want for us.

But here is where a very biblical theme quickly becomes relevant.

What if our life’s hunt for satisfaction and God’s desire to be glorified weren’t at odds with one another, but actually tied intimately together? What if those things we are constantly seeking satisfaction from in life weren’t ends in and of themselves, but signposts pointing us to a greater source of meaning and fulfillment?

Let’s face it we’ve all been there. After many years we’ve landed our dream job and we love it, but we’ve found that it doesn’t quite delight us like it used to. Or that loving relationship we tended to with such care doesn’t captivate us as it once did, or it has suddenly been taken from us. The next high we have been chasing doesn’t hit the spot. That perfect family we long for just isn’t coming together, or that peace we desperately hope to reach can’t be sustained.

We humans spend our lives pursuing these things that we believe will bring us ultimate joy, but are let down time and time again, not because these pursuits aren’t joyful, but because they are not ultimate. Many of these life pursuits are beautiful and worth-while, but they fail to bring lasting joy, comfort, or peace, because they were not created to do so. There is only one thing that is ultimate.

Or rather, one Person.

My Changed Life… And Maybe Yours?

God is the only true, life-giving, thirst-quenching, unwavering source of satisfaction, and when we go to him to be fulfilled, guess what… He is made much of. He is glorified. His “number-oneness” is put on display for the world to see.

Friends, you and I were created to live lives filled with great pleasure and God exists to be glorified. These two truths are actually not enemies of one another, but best of friends. And this is where my #JesusChangedMyLife story begins – and ends. I won’t recount my life story here, but suffice it to say, the day my life changed was when I realized that God is a really big deal and I was created to show how big of a deal he is to the rest of the world. When I learned this, the trajectory of my entire life changed.

My academic pursuits, my career choices, my beautiful family. All of these things matter greatly to me, but they do not exist as individual journeys, but as roads that lead to a greater purpose – not making much of myself, but displaying the goodness of Jesus.

This Easter Sunday can be described as one of contrast.

Due to a worldwide pandemic, many of our lives’ greatest pleasures have been dulled or muted. We are isolated from those we care deeply about. Many of us can’t go to our jobs that give us so much meaning. All of our favorite activities have been put on pause for the good of society.

Could it be possible that during this time where all of life has been muted and toned down, that the brilliant dazzle of the resurrection of Jesus would speak something profound to us?

Could it be that your hunt for satisfaction has led you to an old cross and an empty tomb?

Friends, God is a big deal. And the most beautiful way that he has displayed this truth is celebrated today. Today we remember the God who became human and lived among us, but who also died among us. He did so because the human story is one of seeking pleasure but rejecting the one true source of that pleasure – the God who made us. His time among us was brief and filled with sorrow, pain, and isolation, but on Easter we celebrate his overcoming of each of these. The resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus, if true, is the greatest single event in human history, and it was accomplished on your behalf. And mine.

The resurrection of Jesus, if true, is a really big deal, and I can think of no better way to spend one’s life than by showing others how big of a deal it really is.

This is how Jesus changed my life. And maybe it is how he will change yours.

Happy Easter, friends.

5 Joys of Bivocational Ministry

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel for work to Nashville for PLA 2020. PLA is an bi-annual conference, hosted by the Public Library Association. Over the course of several days, I had the opportunity to learn a great deal about the landscape of public libraries, not just here in the U.S. but also globally. There was also a lot of country music, which, depending on your perspective is either a huge win or a major bummer (for me it was closer to the latter).

Since my formal education and training was to be a pastor and not to be a librarian, my first library conference experience was a fascinating “cross-cultural” experience for me. It also led me to spend some time reflecting on the unique calling that is “bi-vocational ministry.”

While many pastors spend their weeks in staff-meetings, service-planning meetings, and sermon-prepping, I spend 40 hours a week managing our local public library. Over the years of training for ministry, I never thought bi-vocational ministry was where I was headed. If I’m being honest, I viewed this type of ministry as second rate, or the “JV squad” of pastors who couldn’t cut it in “real ministry.” Now, I recognize that I couldn’t have been more off base.

In fact, if I had the choice right now between a paid full-time ministry position and being a bi-vocational church planter, I would choose bi-vocational ministry every time. I also believe more and more young pastors should consider this model for their ministry future. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Friendships with people who don’t worship Jesus.

A common challenge for “full-time” pastors can sometimes be getting outside of the church and actually building meaningful relationships with people who hold different beliefs from us. But as someone who spends 40+ hours per week working in libraries, one of the unexpected joys of the last few years has been the ability to make new friends who hold view totally different from me and who don’t identify as Christian. This is a good thing!

Over the years, this has forced me to sharpen and refine my own beliefs. It has allowed others to question me about my beliefs, and it has challenged me to be able to communicate my faith in a way that is winsome and appealing to others. I’m not perfect at it, but I think I’m getting better everyday.

And along with this, it has introduced me to friendships that have genuinely enriched my life. I’ve laughed, celebrated, mourned, and struggled through difficult times with good friends, many of whom I would miss a tremendously if they were not a part of my life. I wouldn’t trade this blessing for anything.

2. Opportunities to show that “ministry” is available everywhere.

It’s not uncommon for pastors to remind our church members of their calling to be ministers in their communities (Eph. 4:11-12). Sometimes, however, it can be easy for us pastors do all the “equipping the saints for ministry” in a way that doesn’t resonate with true rhythms and challenges of everyday life.

In bi-vocational ministry, however, this is impossible. Life outside “the four walls of the church” is the water bi-vo pastors are swimming in. Just as the best way to learn a new language is to immerse yourself in that language, the best way to speak the language to our people about loving our communities is to actually be living it.

The “ministry” opportunities I’ve had working as a librarian are too many to count, but they’ve included, praying with friends who have lost children, helping a retired friend find a job after losing his wife, and welcoming new immigrants to our community – just to name a few.

It’s been a privilege to minister to our community in such a way, and because of these opportunities I can help others in our church see their unique calling to minister in their everyday places of work.

3. It forces dependence on other leaders.

This is a lesson I’m learning currently, and I’m sure I’ll continue to learn it over and over again. But the main point is this: The church was not meant to be led by one “man with the plan.” The reality is if our new church is going to succeed it can’t be all about me as the singular leader in charge.

Practically, there just isn’t enough time in the day for me to work full-time, lead a church, shepherd God’s people and care well for my family – at least not if I want to last long.

And this isn’t just a practical point, it’s a theological point as well. The New Testament is clear that the church was meant to be led by a plurality of qualified pastors/elders and deacons. God’s design for the church is a beautiful one, and bi-vocational church leadership has just pushed me toward this conviction even more quickly than I anticipated.

If our church is going to survive and thrive, I need other gifted men and women who can lead along with me. This is good for me and it’s good for our church.

4. It frees up resources for the church.

One of the early challenges for new, young churches is to find out how they are going to fund their ministry as well as pay a pastor’s full-time salary (sometimes this includes multiple pastors). This is increasingly difficult for churches that are planting in urban, low-income, blue collar communities (like Commerce City).

The blessing of bi-vocational ministry is that my family’s financial well-being is not tied to the financial life of our church. What this means, ultimately, is financial security for my family and for our church. Since our young church is not going to have to worry about how to pay my salary, we will be able to put the vast majority of what money we have toward ministry in our community. What a blessing to be able to free up resources for our church and community in this way.

5. Hope for the long haul.

This point is tied directly to the previous one. Another worry for new church plants is often about needing to grow quickly enough to become “self-sustaining.” In other words the mentality is, “If the church doesn’t grow by x amount in the first 3-5 years, we’ll be forced to close.”

What this can lead to is endless anxiety about how quickly we’re growing, how much people are giving, and if it’s enough to keep us alive when the clock runs out. Obviously, every church should care about these questions on some level, but if the livelihood of your family and the existence of your church is tied up in this, it can create a situation where we’re ministering with our heart in the wrong place. This problem is especially magnified when ministering in a low-income context.

But if we can avoid these worries, it can free us up to be less concerned about “growing quickly” or being “self-sustaining” and more concerned about serving faithfully and trusting God to give the increase in his timing. This is a much healthier posture to be serving from that can allow greater health and success over the long-haul.

Obviously, no ministry model is perfect. There are many hurdles and obstacles to be dealt with in bi-vocational ministry, and I’m sure, many challenges that I haven’t even had the opportunity to face yet. But overall, I think it can be a huge win for the church if more pastors start considering how this model could look in their contexts.

Pursuing Ministry – but Not as a Career

Sometimes, depending on your career choice, pursuing your dream job can be a complicated journey,  but most of the time it’s a pretty clear cut process, and it generally mirrors the process listed below.

Whether pursuing a vocation inside or outside of the church, it usually goes something like this.

  1. Determine the training/education needed for that field.
  2. Pursue that education and (if possible) internships/apprenticeships in the field during your education.
  3. After graduating or completing training, start searching job boards and applying for desired openings.
  4. Land a lower level job in the field, and spend the next several years “working your way up” to your desired position.

Obviously there are exceptions to this process, but in general I think this is a pretty accurate description of a large majority of career paths.

I would also say that for the most part, in recent history, this has been the path for many people pursuing pastoral ministry.

And while this process makes sense for pursuing most “secular” careers out there, I have become convinced that this path is not always the best path to take for those pursuing pastoral ministry. In fact, the longer I’m in ministry, the more I believe that landing your “dream job” in ministry should be more like finding a family and less like pursuing a career.

My personal journey has looked more like the former than the latter. This has not necessarily happened intentionally, but as I’ve traversed this path, there have been a few insights I’ve gathered that are worth considering for anyone thinking about pursuing ministry not as a job, but as a calling.

Pursuing ministry opportunities should be based on our convictions, and not our desire for paid positions.

Early on in ministry I was faced with a difficult decision. I was doing student ministry at a growing church in my home community, with a paid, part-time salary. I knew there were likely going to be plenty of opportunities for advancement into full-time paid positions in the future. I was grateful for my church, but as I formed my own theological views and ministry philosophy, I knew eventually I’d have to find a church more closely aligned with my growing convictions.

When that new church presented itself, I found that there was room to serve and much to learn, but not as a “paid pastor.” The question became do I stay in the place where I can collect a pay check and maybe “move up,” or do I go to the church that I align with theologically and philosophically, even if that means I have to pick up an outside job to pay the bills?

I chose the second option, and if I had to do it all again, I would make the same decision every time.

As grateful as I am for the church I was at, transitioning to a church that I could go “all in” with has been an invaluable experience and has contributed to my formation as a pastor in ways I never could have imagined. This is counter-intuitive to how we might “pursue a career” in the corporate world, but it’s a key consideration when pursuing a calling to ministry.

Pursuing a calling toward ministry is not a call to climb a corporate ladder.

If we were to make a Venn diagram illustrating all the differences and similarities between church leadership and business leadership, there would certainly be a great deal of overlap between these two fields. And while those similarities are good to learn from, some of the most important elements of leadership within the church are the ones that fall outside of that area of overlap.

CEOs aren’t called to be known for their love, or for their hospitality, or their gentleness.

Pastors are.

If this is true, then our pursuit and preparation for these two vocations should look differently from each other. The church is not a business. Therefore, our pursuit of service in ministry should have distinguishing marks that remind us of this truth.

Pursuing ministry can often test our motives for serving in a particular role.

Many of us are familiar with the idea of “paying your dues” in a lower level position in order to earn your place at the table with the big dogs. And while that language makes sense in the corporate world, it should have little to do with serving in Jesus’ church.

When we view ministry positions as stepping stones to the next, more highly desired position, our motives for taking so-called “lower level” roles can often be less than sincere.

But if ministry is less like climbing a ladder and more like serving with a family, we’re more likely to serve in any given position (paid or unpaid) where our gifts can be utilized for the good of the church. This is a win for our personal growth and it is a win for our churches.

Pursuing ministry is not about what we do for Jesus, but what he’s done for us.

Pastoral ministry can be a tricky calling to navigate for our sinful hearts. Scripture reminds us that anyone who seeks this office, desires a noble task. But as a young man in pursuit of pastoral ministry it has often been difficult to untangle the parts of me that are pursuing a noble task, and the parts of me that are being enticed toward what some would call “ministry idolatry,” especially during times when I didn’t hold an official “pastor job.”

Being forced to go through seasons of not being “Pastor Ricardo,” but just “Ricardo,” has been a humbling and sometimes painful experience. Humbling because it’s reminded me that Jesus doesn’t need me to build his church. Painful, because it’s required me to deal with the sinful parts of my heart that seek to build my identity on what I accomplish for Jesus, instead of what he’s accomplished for me.

And yet, confronting some of these issues has put me in a position that I can now minister from a healthier posture; not seeking to accomplish much for Jesus, but seeking to follow Jesus more faithfully.

While the Lord certainly could have taught this lesson another way, I think he used this path toward ministry to help refine me in some important ways.

Pursue Jesus. He’ll provide the ministry.

The journey toward ministry can be a daunting pursuit, and job boards and church staffing websites will probably be around forever. But for the good of the church and our own hearts, I think all young pastors could benefit from thinking about our journey less as a career path, and more like a calling to follow Jesus more closely.

This may not always lead to paid ministry positions, but it will likely lead us to serving the church family God has for us that we never would have found otherwise.

 

 

Church Planting in Nazareth

Can anything good come from…

Commerce City, Colorado?

If you’re from the Denver area you know about Commerce City. This city has a well-known reputation that has existed for many years now, and that reputation is not exactly a favorable one.

For many, the first ideas that come to mind when thinking about Commerce City are not pleasant. There’s the giant oil refinery which tends to impede upon any nice views west toward the mountains or downtown. There is the failing school district that has frequently made headlines recently. There are the jokes about poisonous water, contaminated by the nuclear weapons developed nearby during WWII. Lastly, there are the perceptions of the people who live here; many of whom are blue collar, low income, and a large percentage of whom (at least here in south Commerce City) are of Latino descent with questionable immigration status. That’s not to mention rising homelessness, drug use, crime, etc.

Of course Commerce City is much more than this seedy reputation, but for many, even for those who live here, the common assumptions of this place run strong, which is why, several years ago as the northern, “nicer” part of Commerce City developed, it wasn’t uncommon for people who lived “up there” to distinguish themselves from those who live “down here” in real Commerce City (as some might call it). There was even a time where many moving into the nice, new neighborhoods “up north” tried to change the name of their communities in order to distinguish themselves from… Commerce City.

And yet, while there are many who would look at the list of items mentioned above and see it as good reason for avoiding this place, I look at that list as a large portion of why I love this place.

Church Planting in Nazareth

It’s been a little over a year since my wife and I moved from a more newly developed neighborhood in north Commerce City, into “old Commerce City” with dreams of starting a new church.

And when considering our move down here, there were some who seemed concerned about our decision to do so. After all, many people seek to move out of core Commerce City, not into it. “Are you sure you want to live down there?” some might ask.

After all, the prevailing sentiment among many was not all that different from that of Nathaniel in John 1:43-46 who, when told about the arrival of the long anticipated Messiah and his hometown, asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

The shared attitude of Nathaniel in the gospel of John, and many today regarding Commerce City, is not necessarily one of disdain, but more like common lore that makes this city the punchline of a joke that everyone should get (like the smell in Greeley, or the “hippies” in Boulder).

As one author recently wrote in the LA Times, Nazareth would have been known as “a backwater of backwater,” filled with “throwaway people.” Nazareth was filled with working class peasants who fell at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder and had a life expectancy that extended not much beyond their 30s.

And yet, the irony behind that statement and attitude from Nathaniel is the best part of the story. Because even though Nazareth was the ancient version of today’s Commerce City (or east Colfax, etc.), the hidden truth was that yes, something really good actually could come out of Nazareth. Or, as the hip hop artist Sho Baraka raps:

“‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’

Ha. The only thing good came out of Nazareth.”

Not only did a good thing come out of Nazareth, but the best person came out of Nazareth.

Jesus the Christ.

One of the most peculiarly beautiful nuances of the story of Jesus is the fact that the infinitely majestic God of the universe chose to reveal himself not as powerful ruler of nations, but as a lowly tradesman from a town nobody thought or cared much about.

A town to crack jokes about.

And yet from this humble hometown, Jesus of Nazareth – God in human flesh – embarked on his mission to heal all that is broken, unjust, and sinful in this world, and bring about the redemption of sinners like me.

It’s an unlikely story that rubs against our common understanding what a king ought to be. And yet, on another level, it’s a story that we know just might be true. After all, who in their right mind would ever think to make up a story about a God who grew up in a place like Nazareth?

As Molly and I have begun our journey toward starting a new church in Commerce City, a question has been rolling over in my head for months.

Can anything good come out of Commerce City?

Many might laugh and not even think to answer, because after all, that’s the joke right?

Internet memes.

Sarcastic comments.

Low expectations.

Can anything good come out of Commerce City?

I can’t wait to see.

Reflecting on The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby

This week I finished reading a book that I think all Christians should read. But beyond that, I would urge Christian leaders in particular to read and reflect upon this book.

That book was The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity with Racism by Jemar Tisby. The primary purpose of this book is to give a broad overview of the history of racial injustice in the United States, and how, sadly, at many times, the church has had a large role to play in that injustice – sometimes explicitly and actively, and sometimes through passive inaction.

Due to the weighty subject matter, this wasn’t an easy book to read but it was an important read. Here are a few reasons why I appreciated this book and why I think it’s worthy of your attention if you are a Christian or Christian leader.

1.The Purpose is Redemptive in Nature

One of the things I appreciate most about Jemar Tisby and his aim with this book is that his goal is not to tear down but to help bring healing to the American church. One of the things that shines through about Tisby is his humble, yet resolved, posture towards issues of racial reconciliation and justice. That posture shines through this book, but also in Tisby’s other projects which include his Pass the Mic podcast.

Tisby is not an angry critic trying to blast and denounce evangelical Christians, but he is an informed witness who is speaking hard truths both about the history of our nation and about the church’s place in that history. These truths about the racially divisive history of our nation are not easy to look at, but the reality is that without a proper diagnosis of where we’ve come from, we cannot move forward in healing properly. This book is a good first step in that direction, and Tisby’s voice is helpful in guiding us along that path.

2.It Provides Valuable “Cultural Exegesis”

One thing church leaders are often talking about is the value and necessity of doing good “cultural exegesis” – that is, being able to read and understand the culture one is trying to minister to. With that in mind, this book is a helpful tool in exegeting our culture.

I think it is safe to say at this point that if our cultural exegesis in America does not include some attempt to understand the experience of racism among many minorities in our country, our attempts to minister in our communities may be severely frustrated, and in some cases – depending on your context – misplaced or even detrimental.

Every community in our nation, even the most monolithic ones, have some sort of racial history to them. Whether you are planting a church in a gentrifying part of Denver, or somewhere on the eastern plains of Colorado, there is racial history there and as church leaders seeking to enter into and minister in these places, it would be unwise not to give the same level of attention to that history as we would give to all our demographic analysis and network building. And while this history may play a big or small role in the story of your community, depending on your context, it is a piece nonetheless and it would be a mistake to overlook this reality.

3. It Helps Us to See the Big Picture

Depending on what generation or background you come from, it is common for many to assume that racism is a thing of the past in our nation. For many today, racism is something we read about in history books or watch documentaries about, but it certainly doesn’t exist in our country like it used to, except among a few rogue individuals here and there. Tisby’s historical overview of racism in America helps to show that this would be an incorrect assessment. From slavery at our colonial foundations, through the Civil War, Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights movement, and up til today, Tisby shows racism has been deeply embedded within the fabric of our nation, and that over time “racism doesn’t disappear, it just adapts.”

And while systemic racism isn’t as openly visible as it used to be in our country (i.e. slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc.) it still exists just under the surface in many parts of our society. For some this may be difficult to believe, but that’s where gaining a broader perspective is helpful. Seeing the big picture that Tisby walks us through in this book helps us to make sense of the fact that even if things have improved a great deal in the last several decades, centuries worth of racial injustice cannot be healed in such a short period of time.

There is still plenty of healing work to do as a nation, and within the church of Jesus Christ, and in order to do that work well, we have to start with acknowledging the truth of where we’ve gone wrong. Before we can “do justice… and walk humbly” as God’s people (Micah 6:8), we have to see and own where we’ve failed, so we can resolve to do better.

Conclusion 

As mentioned above, this book is a challenge to read, but as the God’s people there are information and ideas present within it that can help us to be agents of healing in our nation. The implications and effects of racism in your community or network of friends may be closer than you realize, even within the church you belong to. Recognizing where we have fallen short as God’s people is the first step in living out our calling to be salt and light in the world. I think this book can help us accomplish that mission.

 

Reflections on Martin Luther King Jr.

Several weeks ago, while following a threaded conversation on Twitter, I came to realization that I had never read anything very substantial written my Martin Luther King Jr. Sure, I remember reading a short biography about him when I was in fourth grade, and I’ve listened to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but other than these brief points of contact, I realized I’ve had very little exposure to the man’s thoughts and writings.

I think this was particularly convicting for a few reasons. First, given much of the frustration at the current level of racial tension in our nation, I felt that Martin Luther King’s voice is one I should have thought to listen to along time ago. Along with this, I’ve recently set the goal to begin reading books, and specifically theology, written from more ethnically diverse backgrounds. This isn’t necessarily because I am unappreciative for the many Anglo voices that have come to fill my bookshelves and influence my theology, but more so it is because as a Mexican-American Christian, I have felt a pull to become better acquainted with many of the non-white voices that aren’t often quoted on Facebook, or assigned as texts in seminary. Martin Luther King Jr. clearly falls into this category. Lastly, I was convicted that I’d never read anything from the man because he was not only a great American historical figure, but also a great preacher and faithful Christian, whose writing and thinking ought not be forgotten or ignored.

Therefore, I felt it was time to read something written by Dr. King. So for the last several weeks I’ve been reading through Strength to Love, which is a collection of many of King’s sermons that was a originally published in 1963. The following points are just a few of the observations I’ve had while reading this small book.

He was an incredibly gifted thinker and speaker.

I never knew that Martin Luther King was only 15 years old when he graduated high school, 19 years old when he graduated from college and was ordained for ministry, and 26 years old when he graduated with his PhD in Systematic Theology from Boston University (this was also the same year he became a key leader in the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama). I am 26 years old right now and it is astounding to consider the level of education and leadership that this man achieved at such a young age. His sharp thinking is evident throughout his writing. He never spoke down to his congregants, but he often challenged his listeners to reject “soft-mindedness” and he reminded them that part of faithfully following Jesus means thinking rightly. This is a healthy word for the church today.

His writing is deeply relevant still today.

This probably isn’t much of a surprise to many, but I have been amazed at how many sentences or whole paragraphs I have highlighted because they are so applicable to America in 2018. Whether he was discussing justice and oppression, or war, or the pitfalls of evolutionary theory, or the prophetic role of the church, he made many observations that almost seemed to be speaking directly to where we find ourselves as a nation – and as a church – today.

His faith profoundly shaped all of his writing, speaking, and social action.

There are many today who might criticize Martin Luther King on certain aspects of his theology. Even as I have read some of his sermons, I have had to think twice about how certain key theological points are phrased. And while there is much to be debated about where King fell on the theological spectrum, what cannot be debated is the fact that it was precisely his theology which permeated and fueled all of his writing, preaching, and social action.

His view of God’s justice and sovereignty is what allowed him to endure suffering and oppression patiently. His view of Jesus’ love on the cross, is what compelled King to love those who brought about his suffering and oppression. His understanding of God’s forgiveness is what led him to extend forgiveness toward his racist neighbors. His understanding of all humans being made in the image of God is what grounded his belief that all men are created equal, and therefore deserved equal opportunity and protection under the law. The list could go on, but the point is that you cannot separate the actions of Martin Luther King Jr. from the biblical beliefs upon which they were founded, which leads to my final point.

He doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes which many would like to put him.

It is fascinating to observe social media on MLK Day. People from all over the the political and ideological spectrum post inspirational quotes from Dr. King, and many of these people would (rightly) view him as an admirable historical figure. But I think if Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, many of his ideas would likely be offensive to people on both the secular left and the religious right.

Many who adore him for his social justice work often fail to recognize that his views on social justice were strongly tied to his deep religious convictions. At the same time, many who are quick to laud King’s deep religious faith, are often the same people who fail to see how his faith drove him in his fight against oppression and injustice, and how Christians today ought to be driven to toward the same fight today. Martin Luther King Jr. ought to be applauded and remembered for many things, but as we commemorate him we ought to celebrate him for who he truly was and not some domesticated version of him that fits our ideological agenda. This applies to people on all sides of the political, social, and religious spectrums.

Grateful

I am grateful for Martin Luther King Jr. I’m bummed that it has taken me so long to recognize his voice for the important role that it has played in our nation, but my hope is that whether you are a Christian or not, you might consider picking up one of his works and reading it for yourself (Strength to Love would be a great place to start).

It has only been 50 years since he was shot and killed outside of his hotel room in Tennessee, and we would be fooling ourselves to believe that the racial divides and wounds in our nation have healed in such a short time. That should be more obvious now than ever. But perhaps by listening to his voice once again – and not just once a year on MLK Day – we can continue to strive toward unity in the midst of all that divides our society.

What I Learned from Reading John Piper Books for a Year

Over the course of the last year, I spent a great deal of time reading several books from someone who has, over the years, become one of my favorite authors. I’ve had a great deal of respect for John Piper for many years, even before this last year. I actually went to college right down the street from Bethlehem Baptist Church, where he pastored for over 30 years. Unfortunately, though I was right down the street, other than his name, I didn’t have much of an idea of who he was during my college years.

In my last semester of college, however, I came across Piper’s book Brother’s We Are Not Professionals which is, as Piper calls it, “A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry.” This book was a game-changer in how I viewed Christian ministry because its central thesis hinges on the idea that Christian ministry is not primarily about being a skilled executive, savvy entrepreneur, or entertaining preacher. Rather, the call to be a pastor is primarily a spiritual endeavor in which a deep, abiding love for Jesus and his word is the sole basis of our calling and success in ministry.

This truth completely altered my trajectory in ministry from that time forward.

Since that time, I’ve read and listened to Piper off and on. But last summer, on a whim, I decided to order his (at that time) newest book A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal their Complete Truthfulness. One of my professors from seminary, Craig Blomberg, endorsed it, which stood out to me, so I decided to give it a shot.

That book changed the way I viewed the reading the Bible, and from that point on I’ve just kept ordering more Piper books every time I have finished one. Almost a year has passed since then and in that time I have read ten different books written by John Piper.

Listed below is a brief, non-exhaustive list of six themes I’ve encountered in his works which, in my opinion, make his writing invaluable for the Church and for Christians today.

Note: I know that among many Christians, Piper is a polarizing figure for a variety of reasons, but I hope you’ll consider some of these as reason enough to be a charitable toward him in the future, and maybe even consider reading one of his books.

1. He has a Big View of God and an Accurate View of Humanity

The central thesis of all of Piper’s writing is that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” The primary reason that God exists is for his own glory, and this is good news for you and me. It is good news because every single human being was created for and is driven by our need to be satisfied by something outside of ourselves, and God is the only true, life-giving, non-wavering source of that satisfaction.

We may try to find that satisfaction in other places but it will always end in disappointment, apart from Jesus. But when our eyes are opened and we come to God, through Jesus for new life, two things happen. (1) Our deepest needs, longings, and cravings as human beings are met, and (2) God gets the his glory since he is the source of that fulfillment. This message is profoundly biblical, it is good for you and me, and it is good for the church.

2. He Longs to See People Saved from Among All Tribes and Nations

One of the biggest knocks against Piper from people outside of his stream is his insistence on God’s sovereignty over all things, including salvation of sinners like you and me (i.e. “Calvinism”).

But in spite of this (I would actually argue that it is because of this view of how God saves people), Piper has got to be one of the most passionate voices I’ve read in calling Christians to go and tell people across all nations and tribes about Jesus. His heart burns for world missions and he encourages my heart to burn for world missions as well. This is good for the church.

3. He Calls Christians to Risk Much for Jesus

One of Piper’s more popular books is called Don’t Waste Your Life, in which he calls Christians not to waste their lives living comfortably in this world, but rather living a life that boldly and radically shows love and grace to others, no matter what the cost may be on our own lives. This is the kind of Christian life that gives us lasting joy and brings glory to God, and it is the message that many American Christians (including myself) need to hear.

4. He Encourages Christians to Think!

“Raking is easy, but you only get leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.” This is how Piper speaks about the importance of using our minds when it comes to knowing and understanding God. It is never simply about knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but rather, it is because God has made it so that knowing him rightly, leads to loving him truly and passionately, which leads to loving others boldly.

5. He Calls Pastors to Make Much of Jesus, and Not Much of Themselves

Pastoral ministry, church-planting, worship leading. All of these are good and necessary in the church. The danger for those of us pursuing these vocations, is that in our sin we can easily over time make the platforms we have about us and not about Jesus, even while we are trying to tell people about Jesus.

Piper calls pastors to make God supreme in all of our preaching, worship leading, church planting. This is good for us and it is good for the church.

6. All of His Writing is Bible-Saturated

Last, but certainly not least, all of Piper’s writing drips with the Bible. Passages of scripture are not just sprinkled in for the sake of supporting his own opinions. All of his arguments are made by expositing passages from the Bible. This should be true of every pastor and preacher because, at the end of the day, our job is to lead people to love Jesus more than they currently do and this can only happen when we encounter him truly through his word.

And this is why I appreciate John Piper most. Because even though I have added many Piper books to my shelf over the last year, each one of those books has driven me to love another book more deeply, and that book is the Bible.

I pray that the same would be true of my own ministry someday.